Performances

Nerve Center: Teri Garr in Tootsie

On Film / Features — Jan 5, 2015
Tootsie Title

There is no character in Tootsie named Tootsie. She doesn't exist. The word is uttered in only one scene in the whole movie, when Dabney Coleman's “macho shithead" soap opera director, Ron, offhandedly uses it as a demeaning term of endearment for his actress Dorothy Michaels, played by Dustin Hoffman, after a take. As she often does with Ron, Dorothy bristles. “I have a name," she says. “It's Dorothy. It's not Tootsie or Toots or Sweetie or Honey or Doll . . . Alan's always Alan, Tom's always Tom, and John's always John. I have a name too. It's Dorothy. Capital D-O-R-O-T-H-Y." It's a swift little monologue, and it kills. In the midst of this very funny movie about the fluidity of gender, it's a serious reminder of the basic gender inequalities that exist in society, especially in the workplace. It also reminds the viewer that the term “Tootsie" does not apply to Dorothy or to any woman in the film.

“Tootsie" is an idea, and it hovers over all the women in the film. It's intriguing to note, then, that the actor who appears in the center of the frame, facing the camera, when the film's title appears across the screen is not our star but Teri Garr. In this film about one man's gradual realization that women's experiences are indeed very different, even in our seemingly enlightened world, Garr's Sandy may have it the roughest. Like her closest friend and coach, Hoffman's Michael Dorsey, the thirty-four-year-old Sandy is an out-of-work actor and perpetually unlucky in love. Yet she has more of an uphill battle. Unlike Michael, she is discouraged rather than driven to action by setbacks: after losing a plum soap opera role based solely on her meek physical appearance, she threatens to give up and leave New York for the comfort of her hometown, San Diego. Conversely, when told by his agent (director Sydney Pollack) that no one will hire him because of his reputation for being difficult, Michael proves his virility as an actor by dressing as a woman . . . and walks away with the very role that Sandy lost. And the humiliation for Sandy will prove to be twofold: not only is she not, in a sense, man enough to land the part but she'll also soon be halfheartedly romanced by Michael, who'll end up leading her on and dumping her after falling for his new costar Julie (Jessica Lange).

Sandy is a potential sad sack, but Garr imbues her with such thrilling vivacity and no-nonsense pathos that she becomes anything but. To these eyes, she's MVP in a supporting cast that's all potential MVPs—one cannot talk about the movie without mentioning the amazing work of Lange (who beat Garr in the supporting actress Oscar category for her lovely, butter-soft performance), Coleman, Pollack, Charles Durning, George Gaynes, and Bill Murray. Garr brings a crucial unpredictable zaniness that all but sets the rhythm for the film. In an improvised shot early on, during a birthday party thrown for Michael, she bursts out of a bathroom, plunger in hand, claiming she's been trapped there for half an hour. “What kind of party is this?" she asks with a disbelieving scowl, then, without missing a beat, turns to a random party guest, smiles, and asks whether he's having a good time. That ability of Garr's to turn her mood on a dime defines Sandy, who's constantly burrowing forward and sizing everyone up, including herself, as she tries to figure out how to make a go of it in this big, bad city. (She plays a note-perfect New York neurotic; how did she never work with Woody Allen during this era?)

Sandy is a hilarious creation, relatably self-doubting. “I should never have people over for dinner; they never show up," she whines. But what makes her really resonate is Garr's refusal to play the victim, despite Sandy's propensity for martyrdom. After she first sleeps with Michael (who is motivated to bed her when she catches him in his underwear, about to try on her clothes), Sandy's postcoital state is worry. “Will I ever see you again?" she asks, as though he's a one-night stand rather than her best friend of six years. “Sex changes things," she goes on, while amusingly lifting up the sheet and peeking down at her presumably naked body with a furrowed brow. This offhanded literal navel gaze is a blink-and-miss-it moment, but it shows how an actor can make a line her own.

It's one of the film's great ironies that the more enlightened Michael becomes, the worse he treats Sandy, forgetting dinner dates and making up stories about why. His elaborate, unraveling lies, and Garr's ever less patient responses to them, give the film the juice of a door-slamming farce. From these encounters, Sandy, increasingly unwilling to put up with the demeaning treatment, grows tougher. In her climactic scene, she roars, “I read The Second Sex, I read The Cinderella Complex, I'm responsible for my own orgasm. I don't care! I just don't like to be lied to!" She's nobody's Tootsie.

At the beginning of the film, as you can see from this clip, Sandy has “a problem with anger." Perhaps by the end, she'd have a better chance at landing Dorothy Michaels’s part.